This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living,” wrote Don DeLillo 20 years ago in White Noise. Geoffrey Sax’s film White Noise isn’t the long-awaited adaptation, alas—no Hitler Studies here—but for much of its running time, it creeps along like a ghoulishly literal take on that D.D. sentence. Beginning with a long quote from Thomas Edison that, unfolding between simulated bad-reception skips, suggests the paranormal-receptive ability of inventions to come, White Noise quickly establishes a crude goosebump factory that goes straight to the spine.
Six months after the mysterious death of his novelist wife, Anna, grieving architect Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) gets a call from her cell phone—but the line goes dead. Rattled, he contacts an expert in electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), a fringe practice whose adherents patiently troll the airwaves for messages from the beyond. Jonathan soon becomes obsessed, finding an ally in fellow practitioner Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger). Pimping out his glass-clad bachelor pad with banks of monitors and recording equipment, Jonathan reads raster as Rorschach, hearing voices of the deceased buried under oceans of static. Anna’s voice leads him to the scene of a gruesome accident, where he rescues a baby—but it dawns on him that the swirling spirits on the other side might actually be malevolent, revealing glimpses of deaths before they happen (a tinge of Minority Report).
Keaton’s not much more than a plug-in here, though in places he manages some economical emoting that grounds the wilder goings-on. His character resonates as a morbid stand-in for anyone chained to the computer screen, glued to any number of devices: cell phone, car radio, answering machine. As in The Ring, technology is omnipresent but uncanny in its obscurity—what is static, anyway? White Noise teems with whiplash scare tactics, but ably mines the same dead zone previously mapped in flashes: The Outer Limits‘ vertical-horizontal prologue, the communion with snowed-out screen in Poltergeist.
The transfixingly weird Birth crawled down the slope of reason by the end, to some viewers’ chagrin; White Noise vigorously pushes the supernatural line throughout, but unfortunately its final movement is so incoherent that the whole thing collapses. It’s as if the cultural white noise of a thousand indifferent suspense flicks has gathered to drown out the initial spark of invention with a knee-jerk flurry of howling demons and unrelenting studio rain.